This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974 - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

Some legends are strange enough to be true, like this Japanese soldier who fought for nearly three decades after the war had ended. Hiroo Onada was a commando class “Futamata” intelligence officer for the Imperial Japanese Army. Originally enlisting in the infantry at 18 years old, by 1944 — at 22 — he made it to the rank of lieutenant and was deployed to the Philippines. 

Onada’s official orders were to do “all he could” to prevent allied attacks or advancements on Lubang Island. In addition, he was ordered not to surrender or take his own life. Some of his tactics included destroying an airstrip and seeking out enemy propaganda and covert operations. 

His last order was received in 1945 and it said to keep fighting. And he did. 

Hiroo Onada
Profile photo of Hiroo Onoda as a young officer.

At first, Onada didn’t get the memo. Most Japanese soldiers on the island had been captured or killed. But he remained with a few other soldiers — as Onada was the highest-ranking among them, he ordered everyone to take to the woods.

Then he didn’t believe the memo. Soldiers continued to use their guerilla training to survive, evading attempted rescue missions, assuming they were enemy attacks. They were approached by Japanese soldiers with newspaper headings about the end of the war, but having studied propaganda, Onada believed them to be false. 

With the mindset that the war was ongoing, they attacked people on walks or who neared the area, often killing them. They, too, were injured and killed by local authorities, until only Onada survived.

The soldiers lived off of bananas and coconuts, as well as food that they stole from locals, mainly rice and killing nearby cows for meat. They lived in bamboo huts but dealt with rough elements, like tropical heat and mosquitos. 

However, the soldiers kept their rifles working, mended their uniforms and maintained accountability of their ammunition. 

Onada surrenders 

In 1959, he was officially declared dead … until a student went out on a hunch, searching for the missing man. Norio Suzuki found Onada and pleaded for him to return to Japan with him. Onada refused, but Suzuki had taken photos for proof and sent them to the Japanese government. The Emperor himself sent Onada’s brother and his commanding officer to officially relieve him of duties. The latter was, by-then, elderly and working as a bookseller. 

It’s said that Onada saluted and wept upon hearing he was relieved of duty. He officially surrendered to the Philippines and was pardoned for the crimes he committed, as they were made under the assumption of war.

The soldier was returned to Japan and was named a wartime hero. He was deeply regarded for his extreme loyalty and commitment to his country. At 52, he was met by his aging parents and crowds of cheering citizens who celebrated his return home. 

Only one soldier held out longer than Onada, fighting the war decades after it had ended; he was captured later that year in 1974 in Indonesia. 

Life after the war

Determined to be in excellent health, Onada went on to live a long life. He got married, raised cattle, took dancing lessons, but ultimately struggled with modern materialism. 

He passed away in 2014 at 91 years of age. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

The time dozens of Korean service members claimed a UFO made them sick

As a group of American soldiers were preparing to bombard a nearby village about 60 miles north of Seoul, the unit saw a strange vision up in the hills – jack lanterns wafting across the mountain.

Or at least, that’s the story Pvt. First Class Francis P. Wall and the rest of his regiment told. Even more mysterious is what Wall and his buddies say happened after – a pulsing, attacking light that came with lingering and debilitating physical symptoms.


The year was 1951, and the US was 12 months into the Korean War. Stationed near Chorwon, PFC Wall and his buddies were completely unprepared for what happened to them in the Korean hills.

As they watched, an alien craft made its way toward the village. Artillery started to explode. Wall recalls that the object would get right into the center of an artillery airburst but never seemed to show any signs of damage. Later, Wall confirmed that the object could maneuver through sharp turns and seemed to have out of this world navigational capabilities.

Then all of a sudden, the object turned toward Wall and his unit. It changed colors from orange to a pulsating blue-green light, one so bright that it was almost difficult to look at. Wall asked his commander for permission to fire from his M1 rifle, but as the bullets hit the craft, they only made a metallic ding sound before falling to the ground. The object started to shuttle, sprint from side to side and flash its lights on and off.

What happens next is even harder to believe. Wall says he and his unit were attacked by some form of a ray that “emitted in pulses, in waves that you could visually see only when it was aiming directly at you. That is to say, like a searchlight sweeps around and the segments of light … you would see it coming at you.” Walls told this to John P. Timmerman at the Center for UFO Studies during a 1987 interview.

Wall recalled a burning tingling sensation sweep over his entire body. Everyone in his unit rushed into underground bunkers and looked through the windows as the craft hovered above them. Then it shot off at a 45-degree angle. All of a sudden, just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.

Three days later, the entire company was evacuated. When they finally received medical treatment, all were found to have dysentery and a very high white-blood-cell count. To Richard F. Haines, a UFO researcher, and former NASA scientists, the results sounded like symptoms of radiation poisoning.

So what happened to Wall and his buddies?

After the Korean War ended, dozens of service members reported seeing similar unidentified flying objects. The craft often looked like flying saucers. At first, many historians believed the sightings to be Soviet experiments based on German technology and foreign research. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, that theory was debunked, as several years of Soviet sightings were revealed.

From 1952 until 1986, the Air Force ran Project Blue Book, a study into unidentified flying objects and their threat to national security. When the project ended, the Air Force announced they’d discovered nothing unusual. But for Wall and others like him, they aren’t so sure. If the craft had really been Soviet experiments, as so many suggested, then they would have appeared in other conflicts besides the Korean War. And since the sightings recorded by members of the Soviet Union so closely resembled that which Will witnessed, many wonder if it wasn’t something else entirely.

Even though the vast majority of all UFO sightings turn out to be ordinary phenomena like clouds or human crats, there’s still no conclusive evidence about what Wall saw. Without testimony from the others in Wall’s unit, there’s no way to corroborate what he saw, making it even more impossible to determine just what happened that day in the Korean hills.

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Did this British soldier have 9 lives?

How many times can a person come close to death, without actually succumbing to that ill fate? In the case of one British soldier, the number grew until it was almost unbelievably impressive. Adrian Carton de Wiart, lieutenant-general in the Royal Army was uncommonly lucky. 

He fought in both World Wars, as well as the second Boer War, survived being shot no less than seven times, lived through two plane crashes, escaped when captured as a prisoner of war and amputated his own fingers when a doctor refused to help the ailing soldier. 

And that’s not even all of it — seriously, why is this guy not the star of a movie and a household name?! 

Take a deeper look at all that Carton de Wiart went through and how he came to make it to old age, with plenty of stories to tell. 

“The unkillable soldier”

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Carton de Wiart as a lieutenant colonel in World War I (Imperial War Museum)

Carton de Wiart’s tales were so prolific that he earned the nickname of the “unkillable soldier” in his native Britain. Here is an outline of his most noteworthy — and often unbelievable — accomplishments.

  • Over six decades, he fought in three major international conflicts, the Boer War (between Britain and South Africa), World War I and World War II.
  • Carton de Wiart made it to the Boer war in 1899, having left school and using a fake name. Because he was not yet of age, and did not have his father’s consent to fight, he created an alter ego. During this war, he was shot on two occassions — in the stomach and groin — sending him back to Britain. 
  • In WWI alone, he was send on six assignments and wounded eight times. He was shot in the arm and face, which took his left eye and most of the ear. The wound earned him a Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
    • After the shooting, Carton de Wiart was sent to recover in Park Lane. The infirmary was so used to seeing him that it became a running joke where they kept a personal pair of his pajamas at the ready. 
    • He was also fitted for a glass eye, but citing extreme discomfort, he threw it from a moving taxi and opted to sport an eye patch instead. 
    • Also during WWI, Carton de Wiart’s hand was shattered by German artillery. Supossedly, the doctor refused to amputate his fingers, causing Carton de Wiart himself to tear off two of them. Later that year, his entire hand was taken by a surgeon. 
This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
A photo taken during the Cairo Conference in 1943 between China, the UK and USA. Carton de Wiart is standing at the far right, with Winston Churchill is sitting, second from the right. (Wikimedia Commons)

From there, he had to convince a board that he was still fit to fight. Undeterred by his injuries, Carton de Wiart led men into battle during WWII with intensity. He soon became famous for his signature look (black eye patch, thick mustache, empty uniform sleeve) and incredible courage — almost to the point of being reckless. He is said to have calmed the fear of young soldiers, rushing and yelling as he led the pack. 

In fact, he was frequently seen pulling grenade pins with his teeth, then tossing the bomb with his remaining arm. These efforts were said to provide him with the Victoria Cross. Not that he took credit for it, he was stated as saying, “every man has done as much as I have.”

  • During WWII, he flew in a plane that was shot down in the Mediterranean. He swam to shore, where he was taken as a prisoner by Italians. By now, Carton de Wiart was in his 60s and hell-bent on escaping. He attempted many times, even tunneling out of the POW camp and traveling for eight days, before he was recaptured. 
  • Two years later he was released and sent to work in China as a representative, a post that was personally assigned by Winston Churchill. 

Throughout his military career Carton de Wiart was also involved in a second plane crash and shot four more times. Carton de Wiart can say his life was anything but boring. He finally passed in 1963 when he was 83 years old. Read more about his tales in his autobiography, “Happy Odyssey.”

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Which includes a chapter on his transformation to a Bond villain (maybe)(Imperial War Museum)
MIGHTY HISTORY

Why this World War II veteran was the saltiest sailor in American history

There are many outstanding sailors who could lay claim to the title of the U.S. Navy’s saltiest, but since the term is synonymous with “experienced,” there’s one who stands above all others: Nathan E. Cook. 

Many people haven’t heard of Nathan Cook. He wasn’t a Medal of Honor recipient and he didn’t save hundreds of lives in a single day, but what distinguished Cook from other American sailors is his 44 years of service to the Navy, through some of its most disruptive changes – and his long life. 

Cook was born during Grover Cleveland’s presidency in 1885 and two years before he died, he received a letter from President George H.W. Bush congratulating him on his 104th birthday. When he was 15 years old, he was working in a Kansas City meat packing plant when he came upon a poster that read “Join the Navy and See the World.”

“I thought that was a good idea,” Cook said to the Department of Veterans Affairs when he became a centenarian. “One of the Navy boys came out to see us, and said ‘You boys want to get in the Navy?’ I said ‘I sure do.’”

So he did. In 1901, he lied about his age and enlisted, soon finding himself aboard the screw steamer USS Pensacola, a Civil War-era training ship in California, where he learned to sail, operate the coal steamer, and most importantly, swim. 

His first real assignment was aboard the USS Adams, another screw steamer, headed to fight the Boxer Rebellion in China. The Boxers surrendered soon after he arrived, so he was soon back at sea, headed for the Philippines. Although Cook was too late to see service in the Spanish-American War, he was just in time for the Philippine Insurrection.

The people of the Philippines had helped the Americans take the island nation during the Spanish-American War, but once the war was over and Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the Filipinos realized the U.S. had no interest in granting them independence, so they decided to fight for it. 

After serving in and around the Philippines, he was transferred to the protected cruiser USS Columbia and sailed around the world, his first of four circumnavigations, bound for New York, where he met his first wife in 1905. He soon found himself aboard the USS Kansas, a pre-dreadnought battleship and part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, and making his second trip around the world. 

A chief petty officer by then, he befriended two ensigns aboard the Kansas, Chester Nimitz and William Halsey. 

Cook later injured himself off the coast of Gibraltar and was kept in the sickbay until he returned to New York. He learned his appendix had burst while underway but it had dried up and he had no complications.

Cook sailed into Veracruz with the Atlantic fleet aboard Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher’s flagship, the dreadnought battleship, USS Florida. 

By the time the United States entered World War I, Cook had been temporarily commissioned as a lieutenant. He was placed in command of a submarine chaser that sunk two U-boats and was later in command of a seagoing tug, the USS Favorite, in Brest, France. While on a rescue mission, towing a ship back to France, the Favorite was attacked by another U-boat. 

As they towed the damaged ship, two torpedoes were headed in the Favorite’s direction. Cook ordered a hard right rudder and they missed entirely. Cook returned fire with the tug’s 3-inch gun and sank the attacker. He was soon sailing the tug back to New York, where he returned to his permanent rank of boatswain.  

When World War II began, Cook was in the Caribbean operating out of Haiti and Panama. It was in Panama that he experienced his proudest moments of his naval career. 

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Nathan E. Cook in his later years.

“I was the acting commanding officer,” he said. “The Canal insisted that every ship have a pilot aboard to take all the ships through the canal. Everyone else took a pilot except me. I was the only one to take command whenever I got orders to go through the canal. I was the only Naval officer allowed that duty, that’s a fact!” 

Later, he was transferred to the USS Falcon, a minesweeper that was converted into a submarine rescue ship. He retired in 1942, but the Navy promoted him to the permanent rank of lieutenant in recognition of his World War I service. 

Although he was not a Spanish-American War veteran, he was a member of the United Spanish War Veterans, which was open to members who served during that era, even if they didn’t serve in the war itself. 

Nathan Cook would live another 50 years after retiring from the Navy at age 56, dying in 1992 of what the Department of Veterans Affairs says was just old age. His secret to longevity was keeping fit and avoiding the vices of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. 

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This medieval warrior was the first to use a now-famous insult

Götz von Berlichingen was known for a lot of things. The most obvious was that he lost an arm to cannon fire in the heat of battle. Unfortunately for him, it was his right arm, the one that swung swords and dealt death. Unfortunately for all of his enemies, he wouldn’t die until age 82 – and he had a mechanical arm built just so he could keep killing them all.

That’s not even his most enduring legacy.


He was the first to tell an enemy to kiss his ass.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
The phrase caught on like wildfire.

 

When your name is literally pronounced “Guts,” it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took him only three years to get sick of fighting for God and country for the Holy Roman Empire. So, the young von Berlichingen turned to fighting for something more tangible: money. He and his squad of Teutonic mercenaries fought for all levels of feudal lords and barons — anyone who could afford to have a soon-to-be legendary badass on their side.

It was in 1504, while fighting to take Landshut for the Duke of Bavaria, that a cannonball lopped his arm off at the elbow. He had two prosthetic arms created for himself – and one of them could still hold his sword or shield. So, von Berlichingen continued to make money the best way he knew how.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
This time, he was more machine than man.

 

The knight seized merchant shipping, kidnapped nobles for ransom, and raided towns around Germany as a means of making money. This, unfortunately, earned him few powerful friends, and he found himself banned from the Holy Roman Empire on multiple occasions. He was even captured and held for ransom himself.

After his final ban, he joined the German peasants in exacting revenge on the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire. Despite that failure, he fought on until he was captured again. When finally liberated by Charles V, he was forced into a sort of house arrest, only allowed to come out in case Charles needed his services.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Of course Charles needed his services. You would, too.

 

Berlichingen would assist German knights in fighting the Ottoman under Suleiman the Magnificent and invade France against the famous King Francois I. By then, however, he had already uttered his famous phrase. It was somewhere near Baden-Wurttemburg, while under siege, that the seemingly-immortal knight received a surrender demand. He was not impressed by it at all. He returned it with a famous response, telling the Swabian army (and their leaders) to kiss his ass.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Though some translations have it as “lick my ass.”

 

After he was sick of mercilessly slaughtering Europeans all over the continent, Götz von Berlichingen decided to sit down and write his memoirs, which were apparently the greatest story ever told in German for the longest time. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe penned a 1773 drama that is still retold to this very day, based solely on the story of von Berlichingen’s account of his life.

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How the Allies defeated one of their deadliest WWII adversaries

Entering the Imperial German Navy in 1911, Karl Dönitz, a Berlin native, served as a submarine commander in WWI as Hitler was coming into power. While underway on deployment in 1918, his UB-68 was badly damaged by British forces and eventually sunk, but Dönitz was captured and transported to a POW camp.


After nine months of captivity, Dönitz was released from custody back to German hands where he was appointed by General Admiral Erich Raeder to command and create a new German U-boat fleet.

Under his new position, he developed a U-boat patrolling strategy called “wolfpack” formations — meaning groups of submarines would maneuver in straight lines. Once the patrolling U-boats came in contact with enemy vessels, they would signal the wolfpack who would then charge forward and attack.

Related: This is the disease Hitler hid from the public for years

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Admiral Karl Dönitz meets with Adolf Hitler (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In 1943, Dönitz replaced General Admiral Raecher as Commander-in-Chief (the same man who originally assigned him) and with his naval warfare expertise began winning Hitler’s trust.

During his role as Commander-in-Chief, Dönitz was credited with sinking nearly 15 million tons of enemy shipping, coordinating reconnaissance missions, and allowing his U-boat commanders to strike at will when they believed they could inflict the most damage. At that same time, he commanded of 212 U-boats and had another 181 on standby used for training. His tactics proved to be superior to those of his enemys until the invention of microwave radar which managed to spot his German created U-boats sooner than before.

After Hitler died, his last will and testament named Dönitz as commander of the armed forces and the new Reich president. For the next 20 days, he served the last leader of Nazi Germany until the British once again captured him on May 23, 1945.

During the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz was charged with multiple war crimes and sentenced to 10 years in Berlin’s Spandau prison. Upon his release, he published two books and continued to state he had no knowledge of any crimes committed by Hitler.

The German admiral died on Christmas Eve, 1980.

Also Read: This is the legendary Nazi general who turned on Hitler

Check out the Smithsonian Channel video below to discover some of the German U-boats effects on the war.

(Smithsonian Channel, YouTube)
MIGHTY HISTORY

North Korea’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Actually Died Twice

Kim Il-Sung, the founder and patriarch of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – known to many as North Korea – went by a lot of names, including General Secretary of the Korean Workers Party, President, Premier and Supreme Leader.

And those are just the titles he earned while he was alive. In death, Kim Il-Sung is still the leader of North Korea, as the country’s constitution was amended to proclaim him the Eternal President and de jure head of state. Forever.


Before Kim earned his “Eternal” presidency in 1994, however, he was the victim of a celebrity death hoax that got way out of hand. To this day, no one knows why.

It all began at the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th Parallel that has separated the two Koreas since 1953. For years, the two sides blasted propaganda at one another over large loudspeakers.

The North talked about the superiority of North Korean Communism and about Kim Il-Sung in particular. The South blasted information about the superiority of democracy and capitalism. It was an ongoing exchange every day for years.

One day in 1986, it all stopped. The North Koreans started playing music, with no words. The South Koreans were puzzled by this until the speakers began to speak: Kim Il-Sung was dead and Kim Jong-Il. The North Korean flag was lowered to half mast.

When anything major happens in the North (like a Kim dying), the South goes bonkers. !986 was no different. They never know who might take power, what their politics might be and if another Korean War is about to happen. Naturally, the South Koreans went on high alert, waiting for the outcome of the death of North Korea’s first Communist leader (and the only one since the end of World War II).

Rumors poured out of intelligence agencies, with none of the intel vetted or confirmed. Kim Il-Sung had been shot and killed. He was killed in a coup by his generals. North Korean officials around the world were being recalled as the offending officers were escaping to China. Vietnamese officials were told the elder Kim was dead as the North was rising up against Kim Jong-Il.

For almost two days, rumors around the world flared and died as everyone speculated what might happen next. Then, according to NK News, Kim Il-Sung showed up, alive and well. He met a Mongolian delegation at Pyongyang airport, as if the whole world hadn’t been talking about how he was shot and killed in a coup.

Neither Kim nor any state media agency has ever discussed the issue or reported the motivation behind the event. The only thing they know is Kim Il-Sung didn’t die from a gunshot wound in 1986, instead dying from a heart attack in1994.

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This insane pilot conducted first combat search and rescue

It was Nov. 19, 1915. British pilots were attacking Ottoman forces at Ferrijik Junction, a rail and logistics hub. The tiny planes involved in the attack swooped and dove as they dropped bombs and fought off enemy fighters. But then, one of the bombers took heavy fire as it conducted its bombing run, crashing into the nearby marshes. But then a hero emerged.


This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Richard Bell Davies earned the Victoria Cross as a squadron commander in World War I. He would later rise to rear admiral and serve in World War II. (Public Domain)

The attack on Ferrijik was focused on cutting Turkish supply lines, and a large mix of planes had been assembled to conduct the attack. One member of that aerial force was Royal Navy Squadron Cmdr. Richard Bell Davies. Davies had already proven himself earlier that year, pressing a bombing attack on German submarine pens in Belgium despite taking heavy damage to his plane and a bullet wound to his thigh, flying for an hour after his injury before landing safely.

During the attack on Ferrijik, Davies was flying a Nieuport fighter, helping to protect the bombers so they could do their mission as effectively as possible.

A younger pilot, Flight Sub-Lt. Gilbert F. Smylie was one of those tasked with actually dropping the bombs. His plane was equipped with eight, and he came in low and slow over the railway to get his ordnance on target. But the heavy ground fire of the Turkish defenders got to him before he dropped his load.

Smylie quickly began losing altitude, but he kept his plane headed toward the target and then released all of his bombs at once over the rail station. One failed to separate, but the other seven fell to the earth from low altitude. Despite shedding all that weight, Smylie couldn’t get his plane back up to altitude, so he turned it toward a dry marshbed and carefully set the plane down.

He attempted to restart his plane, but that failed, and so he decided to take the machine offline permanently to prevent its capture. Smylie set the bird on fire, trusting the fire to set off the bomb and destroy the plane completely. But then he saw something he almost certainly could not have predicted.

A Nieuport fighter was descending toward him. At the time, an airplane had never been used to rescue a downed airman, so the idea of a one-seater descending to save him must have seemed like insanity to Smylie. But, to ensure that this pilot wouldn’t be killed by the exploding bomb, he pulled his pistol and shot the munition to set it off, destroying it before the other plane was too close.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
A Nieuport 10 scout plane. (Colorized by NiD.29, CC BY-SA 2.5)

 

The Nieuport, with Davies at the controls. landed in the marshbed with Smylie even as Bulgarian rifle fire began to crack overhead. Davies’ Nieuport 10 had only one seat, but was originally designed and constructed with two. Important flight controls had bars running through the converted cockpit, and the whole thing was covered with a cowl.

Smylie scrambled into the tight quarters of the former cockpit, contorting himself around a rudder bar and pressing his head against an oil tank, and Davies took off. The explosion of Smylie’s plane had temporarily slowed the enemy fire, and the two pilots were able to escape before the Bulgarians ramped their fire back up.

After about 45 minutes, the pair reached safety, but it took two hours to extract Smylie from the confined quarters.

Smylie received the Distinguished Service Cross for his work that day, and Davies earned the Victoria Cross with his bravery. This first search and rescue from the air would spur the development of dedicated tactics and techniques that have carried forward to today.

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The Army experimented with bio weapons on conscientious objectors

Ask around Fort Detrick and you’ll probably learn more about Operation Whitecoat — an Army program that exposed human participants to infectious pathogens. But outside the base, the experiments are virtually unheard of, according to Randy Larsen, a former Air Force pilot turned documentary filmmaker.


“I found there are very few people who have ever heard of Whitecoat, which is why there’s a good reason to tell the story,” Larsen said.

Larsen himself became fascinated with the program — which recruited more than 2,300 noncombatant conscientious objectors from the Seventh-day Adventist Church — after a friend suggested it as a documentary topic.

What he anticipated would be a five- to six-month hobby project eventually turned into a 20-month film production, culminating in an eponymously named documentary on the operation and its volunteers.

Operation Whitecoat (2017) Trailer from Randall Larsen on Vimeo.

 

The film “Operation Whitecoat” made its debut in Frederick on May 30 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the agency that conducted the tests from 1954 to 1973. But Larsen will also hold two public screenings on June 3 at the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church on Jefferson Pike.

Gary Swanson and Ken Jones, two Whitecoat participants who attended the screening on May 30, said outreach to the church was especially important. Despite the huge role played by Seventh-day Adventists, knowledge of the project has faded among church members.

“It’s very little-known, I’ve found that to be true,” Swanson said. “Even in the church, it doesn’t come up very often.”

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

A lasting legacy

Despite the relative obscurity of Operation Whitecoat, civilians around the country — and around the world — can thank the program for the development of several widely used vaccines. Tularemia, yellow fever, and hepatitis vaccines were all tested on participants in the project, Larsen said.

“That’s why I found it interesting to see that the yellow fever outbreak was a front-page story today,” he added at the May 30 screening, pointing out a USA Today article on the spread of the disease in Brazil. “Because the vaccine was developed here at Fort Detrick with the Whitecoat program.”

To research for his documentary, Larsen interviewed participants all across the country and dug deep into the documentation of the program.

Letters between military and church leaders indicate that the Army considered the program a viable alternative to battlefield service for church members, whose religious beliefs urge against combat.

“The general consensus is that it is just not morally responsible to bear arms,” said Swanson, who later worked in publishing for the Adventist church. “That the taking of life is not the business of a Christian.”

There is, however, strong scriptural support for serving one’s country in a peaceful capacity, he added. As a result, most church members served the U.S. either as medics or as Whitecoat volunteers once the program became an option.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Operation Whitecoat consent letter

While both Swanson and Jones participated in the program, their experiences were slightly different. Jones, 83, served from 1954 to 1955 and then worked as a corpsman for the program until September 1958.

As one of the inaugural volunteers, he distinctly remembers walking across a catwalk at Fort Detrick — then called Camp Detrick — to the “Eight Ball,” where participants were exposed to the pathogens.

He and the other men in his group were dosed with Q fever, a relatively common bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms. None of them got sick, Jones said, but the experiment did help researchers adjust the dose for future volunteers.

“It’s like this — when you start your car, you take little steps to get there,” he explained. “You don’t take one big step and just jump in. Well, the amount they gave us, they knew we handled it OK. Now, the next three that came up, they did get sick.”

Swanson served later, and was part of an even lesser-known aspect of the program — one that benefited scientists at NASA. He reported for service in October 1969, and was part of an experiment to determine how well astronauts could function should they became sick while on a mission.

In his study, teams of five men were exposed to sandfly fever and then trained on a simulated spacecraft console. Eight hours a day, three days a week, the teams pretended to operate the consoles, even while some of them developed nausea and fevers of up to 104 degrees.

“You had to keep calibrated and you had to keep it set,” Swanson said. “When you saw it going wrong, you had to figure out how to fix it. And we were told it was part of a study underwritten by NASA to anticipate astronauts’ ability to operate sophisticated equipment if they were sick.”

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Operation Whitecoat helped improve the use of gas masks and biohazard suits

Beyond the benefit to NASA, USAMRIID still attributes the development of essential safety gear — including gas masks and biohazard suits — to Operation Whitecoat.

The program even played a small role in the Camp David Accords. In 1977, an outbreak of Rift Valley fever in Egypt killed thousands of residents and animals. The vaccine for the disease — tested by Whitecoat volunteers — was a major bargaining chip for both Egypt and Israel when leaders met with President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

“That was such a little-known piece of history that the people at USAMRIID didn’t even know about it,” Larsen said.

Ethical implications

Larsen and researchers at USAMRIID also tout the program as the harbinger of stringent standards for human testing. Operation Whitecoat set a precedent for informed consent — the policy of clearly educating human test subjects on the details and risks of research experiments — and served as a foil to other horrific experiments conducting on unknowing subjects, including the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and human radiation exposure by the Atomic Energy Commission.

“It’s a story that all Americans can be proud of,” Larsen said. “The fact is, Operation Whitecoat is one of the highest standards of ethical research out there.”

One of the most striking details of the project, he added, is that military leaders and researchers at USAMRIID exposed themselves to the pathogens before subjecting their participants. Both Jones and Swanson said that it was strong leadership that prevented real fear among the volunteers.

“I’ve thought about this many times, and I can’t give you an answer on what went through my mind as I went across that catwalk,” Jones said. “I was 21 years old. We felt like we had good leadership. We trusted what they were telling us, and we followed.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the US used an island-hopping campaign in World War II

In World War II’s Pacific Theater, the United States had a big problem: the operating area was humongous. In one sense, it’s no surprise — the Pacific is the world’s largest ocean and they needed to get across that ocean in order to defeat Japan. But Japan had also occupied a lot of bases in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands during the inter-war period (and illegally fortified them). Finally, the Allies needed a way to deal with the fierce Japanese force, but they needed to do so without endangering the “Germany first” grand strategy for defeating the Axis.

This problem proved extremely difficult. The Japanese, at Guadalcanal, in the Philippines, and elsewhere, had proven to be fierce fighters on the ground. It was painfully obvious that fighting island to island on a campaign across the Pacific would take a lot of time and cost many lives. But at the same time, the Japanese bases had to be neutralized.

In 1943, after Guadalcanal had been cleared, Admiral William F. Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur began planning the next phase of the offensive in the massive ocean, with the ultimate objective of taking out Rabaul, Japan’s major base in the south Pacific.


The first plan they came up with would have required additional forces drawn from efforts in Europe. That, of course, didn’t fly with politicians.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers fly over an atoll in the Pacific during the island-hopping campaign.

(US Navy)

Instead, the answer to the Pacific question was to grab a few key bases and then use air power and submarines to cut off the other Japanese installations from resupply and reinforcement. The term for this was “island hopping” or “leapfrogging.”

There were two primary benefits to this strategy: First, it could be accomplished with fewer troops. Second, it meant the cut-off enemy forces couldn’t be pulled back to reinforce important objectives, like the Philippines.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

Bases seized by the Allies were used to launch strikes that targeted enemy supply lines. One of the most famous actions was the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

(USAF)

The targeted bases in the island-happen campaign were selected for two purposes: First, they were the jumping-off points for the next “hops” towards Japan. Second, they served as bases for forces that had the job of plastering the now-isolated garrisons left behind. This was what John Glenn did while serving in World War II.

While plans originally called for capturing Rabaul, the decision was made to bypass it after successfully seizing some other locations where Allied forces could build airfields.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

John Glenn’s World War II service included a combat tour striking bypassed Japanese garrisons in the F4U Corsair.

(US Navy)

The island-hopping strategy worked. In less than four years, the United States had forced Japan’s surrender. While much of history focuses on the hotly-debated use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ability for America to deliver those weapons hinged on some very strategic leapfrogging.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time an Air Force pilot saved a United Airlines flight

For most airmen going on leave for the holidays, the time off means an escape from their everyday Air Force career. After all, when is someone going to need a loadmaster at the liquor store (unless there’s a huge bourbon shortage at an egg nog festival and Costco is planning a relief drop from a C-17)?

An Air Force pilot on a United Airlines flight, however, is another story.


Like a scene out of a movie, Captain Mike Gongol was on a flight to see his extended family in Denver from Des Moines in 2013 when the B1-B Lancer pilot noticed the Boeing 737’s engine begin to idle — something only another pilot would realize. When the plane began to descend and drift to the right, he knew something was up.

He was right. A nurse on board the flight, Linda Alweiss, entered the cockpit, and found the pilot slumped over in his seat.

The rest of the plane knew something was up when a flight attendant asked the passengers if there was a doctor aboard the plane. They were asked to remain seated as the crew ran up to first class with a medical kit. When the attendants again addressed the passengers, they asked if there were any “non-revenue pilots” aboard the plane.

Gongol realized the pilot was probably the patient – and his Air Force specialty was needed. The first officer must have been the only other pilot aboard. He “looked to his wife as she gave him a nod, and Gongol pressed his button and headed toward the flight deck.”

“He was sick and mumbling and was just incoherent,” the nurse told KTLA.

A Rockwell B-1 Lancer is a very different craft from a Boeing 737. Differences in weight, crew, engine number and thrust, top speeds and ceilings are all significant factors. The moment Gongol entered the cockpit, he and the first officer sized one another up – he opted to support her as her first officer.

The Air Force captain decided to let her take the lead. He backed up her checklists, used the radio, and kept an eye out for anything going wrong.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

“She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed, who wouldn’t be,” Gongol told Air Force Space Command. It was only when they moved to land in Omaha that Gongol took the lead. The first officer had never landed in Omaha, but Capt. Gongol knew the airfield well, landing there many times in training. Still, he talked her through it.

The pilot, as well as the other 157 people aboard the flight, survived the trip.

MIGHTY TRENDING

This WWII battle had ships firing point blank with 16-inch guns

In the Pacific Theater of World War II, many of the battles were either curb-stomp affairs by one side or the other — either because Japan was “running wild” in the early parts of the war, or because America brought its industrial might to bear.


Many historians view Midway as an exception to that one-sided rule since America’s victory is often viewed as a pure luck.

But one engagement where the two sides stood toe-to-toe occurred during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Henderson Field in August, 1942. (US Navy photo)

On the night of Nov. 14, 1942 — less than 48 hours after Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan had defied the odds to turn back an attempt to bombard Henderson Field — the Japanese made another run for the airfield that was the big prize of the Guadalcanal campaign. They went with the battleship Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers to do the job.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
Japanese ships sailing towards Guadalcanal on Nov. 14, 1942. (Japanese photo)

Against this force, Vice Adm. William F. Halsey was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He stripped the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) of most of her escorts, sending in four destroyers and the fast battleships USS Washington (BB 56) and USS South Dakota (BB 57), under the command of Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
USS Washington (BB 56), shortly after being commissioned. (US Navy photo)

Admiral Lee was an expert on naval gunnery, and according to The Struggle for Guadalcanal, written by naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “knew more about radar than the radar operators.”

That knowledge would soon be put to the ultimate test.

The Japanese force cut through the American destroyers, sinking two outright, fatally damaging a third, and crippling the fourth. The battleship USS South Dakota then turned and was silhouetted by the burning destroyers. The South Dakota took 26 hits from the Japanese guns, but the Japanese lost track of the Washington, which closed to within 8,500 yards of the Japanese battleship Kirishima.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974
USS Washington (BB 56) fires at the Kirishima, Nov. 14, 1942. (US Navy photo)

USS Washington was about to slug it out with a Japanese battleship in a one-on-one fight. Using radar control, the Washington opened fire on Kirishima, and scored as many as 20 hits with her 16-inch guns. The Kirishima was rendered a sinking wreck.

The Japanese tried to even the score with Long Lance torpedoes, but missed.

The Japanese made a very hasty retreat, leaving Kirishima and a destroyer to sink. Their last chance at shutting down Henderson Field for the Allies was gone.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Puerto Ricans gained US citizenship just in time to be drafted for World War I

In 2017, Puerto Ricans battled economic hardship and the lasting effects of Hurricane Maria at home as they celebrated 100 years of American citizenship. On March 2, 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed by Congress, making the island a U.S. territory and guaranteeing citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born after April 25, 1898. With citizenship came all the requirements of citizenship: serving on juries, paying taxes, and being drafted for military service.

Just in time for World War I.


This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

Welcome to the party, pal.

It was just twenty years after the United States usurped the island’s Spanish rulers in the Spanish-American War and annexed Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States. By the end of the United States’ participation in World War I, the Selective Service Act would draft some 2.8 million men, sending an estimated 10,000 troops to France every day. The U.S. Army had come a long way from the third-rate militia it was before the war. To meet the requirements of becoming a great, global power, it needed the manpower of one.

American territories, which at the time included Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and others, were exempt from the draft. The legislature of Puerto Rico immediately asked Congress to extend conscription to American territories – namely Puerto Rico. But this was purely at the request of the Puerto Ricans.

This WWII soldier went rogue and fought until 1974

Puerto Rican Cpl. Ricardo LaFontaine in 1917.

In all, some 236,000 Puerto Ricans from the island signed up for selective service for a potential draft notice. Of those, 18,000 would go on to serve in the war. But they weren’t always welcome. African-American Puerto Ricans, like many minorities in the U.S., weren’t entirely welcome and ended up in segregated units. For those Puerto Ricans not of African descent, they would be assigned to some regular units in the U.S. military. Still, President Wilson, in the face of discouragement from the War Department, created a Puerto Rican Division.

A full 70 percent of those Puerto Ricans who signed up for service in World War I were rejected for no other reason than the War Department didn’t know what to do with them in a segregated Army. Despite this, there has long been a conspiracy theory that held Puerto Rico was only granted citizenship so they could fight in the war. If that were true, the U.S. would have sent a lot more Puerto Ricans than it did.

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